Last week, the holidays became anything but festive for the University of Tennessee Knoxville when a memo to staff and student groups concerning holiday celebrations began to catch the public’s attention. The memo encouraged University groups to ensure their celebrations were not “Christmas parties in disguise” and not to use “Dreidels” for party games.
Once the memo became public, state and local lawmakers immediately expressed their outrage that a public university would interfere with traditional expressions of Christianity and Judaism and called for the resignation of high-ranking university officials. On the other side of the debate, others gathered to say that religion should be kept private and all public gatherings should stay away from any religious symbolism out of respect for diversity.
Even the memo itself is somewhat confusing as it advises using “décor from multiple religions” in the 2nd bullet point while advising against any religious décor in the 8th bullet point. The internal contradictions in the memo showcase the difficulty of walking the fine line of promoting freedom of religion (which enlivens the human spirit) while opposing freedom from religion (which degrades the human spirit).
Was this memo well-intentioned? Probably. Did it unfairly single out Christian and Jewish traditions to be excluded? Most likely. Does either side of the public debate help us become a more compassionate and respectful society? I’m not sure they do.
The idea that we should set aside our deepest most cherished beliefs in public falls short because ultimately it allows for less diversity rather than more. Prohibiting religious practices and symbols in the name of tolerance makes our society less open and respectful.
Likewise, the idea that heads should roll by those who seek to protect Christian Christmas traditions seems to fall far short of the love and grace we find in Jesus Christ whose birth started the whole Christmas thing in the first place. Late last week, angry protestors painted the famous UTK rock with the words “All I want for Christmas is” the resignation of a certain UTK official. I could not help but immediately think of Jesus’ comment to a mob hell-bent on stoning a woman caught in the act of adultery: “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone at her (John 8:7).” In this instance, I can imagine Jesus saying “Let anyone without sin paint the rock first.” If there is anyone among us who has never made a well-intentioned mistake that ultimately hurt our organization, then by all means let that person paint the rock first. Along with the rest of you who have held down jobs for more than a week, I’ll refrain.
Thankfully, history provides detailed records of a group that discovered a loving, faithful way to respond to a society that often unfairly singled out their religion for censorship. That group is now known as the early church and their story is recorded in the Book of Acts and the writings of the Apostle Paul. When early church leaders were arrested for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, they did not call for the resignation of Roman officials or Jewish religious leaders. They thanked God that through their trials they were being given a chance to share the love and grace of Christ with Roman officials and the crowds that gathered to listen to their trials (Acts 5:40-42). The Apostle Paul even thanked God that he was given a chance to share the Gospel with the emperor even though his trial before the emperor ultimately led to his execution (Philippians 1:12-14).
If the early Christians looked at harsh persecutions as extraordinary opportunities to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ, why can’t we 21st century Christians not give thanks that this very slight impingement on our religious rights gives us the opportunity to respond with the gracious and surprisingly creative love of Christ, rather than the predictable anger and outrage of an overactive entitlement mentality or the bland appeals for differences to be ignored for the sake of tolerance?
Perhaps what Knoxville needs most is for its Christians to stand together and say: “We understand how Christmas can be offensive to those of other traditions because we believe that baby in the manger was literally God Incarnate. We understand how the promises of the Christian Gospel can come across as outrageous and too good to be true to many people who have yet to invite Christ to dwell in their hearts. But history teaches us that this baby who became a middle class Jewish carpenter and later a controversial Jewish rabbi has done more to promote love for all people and the infinite sacred worth of each individual life than all other political and religious leaders combined. And because of his love for each person, we do not want resignations. We want a society where we can have respectful compassionate dialogues in which we are free to talk about who this baby grew up to be even as we learn from others who believe quite differently.”
Perhaps this would be a message that could help our city and university learn why Christmas is worth celebrating.